A Passionate Defense of Journalists

Have you ever, in your line of work, had someone threaten to throw you off a balcony? That happened to a New York City television reporter the other night, and the one doing the threatening was a U.S. congressman. The episode itself–and the congressman’s first attempt at an “apology”–demonstrates a phenomenal misunderstanding of the critical role journalists play in exercising their First Amendment duty to keep our lawmakers honest.

First the episode itself. After the President’s State of the Union message, NY1 reporter Michael Scotto conducted an on-camera interview with Congressman Michael Grimm (R-NY) in front of what appeared to me to be the third-floor balcony of the Cannon House Office Building rotunda. Scotto asked for the congressman’s response to the President’s speech. Grimm replied with his Republican talking points. And then Scotto did his job. He asked Grimm about a criminal investigation Grimm is facing regarding his campaign finances.

Grimm stormed off, then returned. Off camera, but clearly audible, Grimm told Scotto: “You ever do that again, I’ll throw you off the [expletive deleted] balcony… I’ll break you in half. Like a boy.” Washington Post columnist Alexandra Petri wrote an excellent summary of the incident and the aftermath.

IMG_0678To me the story is not the fact that there is a member of Congress who lost his temper. I’ve been around Congress for 25 years, and I tell anyone who will listen that the U.S. House is truly representative of America. Think of everyone you know in your life–hero and nut-job–and there’s someone in the House of Representatives who matches that description. No, the story here is what Grimm revealed in his first attempt at a public apology. He attacked the reporter’s professionalism:

I was extremely annoyed because I was doing NY1 a favor by rushing to do their interview first in lieu of several other requests. The reporter knew that I was in a hurry and was only there to comment on the State of the Union, but insisted on taking a disrespectful and cheap shot at the end of the interview, because I did not have time to speak off-topic. I verbally took the reporter to task and told him off, because I expect a certain level of professionalism and respect, especially when I go out of my way to do that reporter a favor. I doubt that I am the first Member of Congress to tell off a reporter, and I am sure I won’t be the last. [Emphasis added]

Part of a journalist’s job is to ask tough questions, the kind of questions the interview subjects may not want to answer. It’s possible Scotto was told Grimm wouldn’t agree to an interview unless Scotto didn’t ask about the federal investigation. It’s possible Scotto agreed to those terms.

And yet.

If you are a reporter and you have a public servant on live television, and your television audience is that public servant’s constituents, and you don’t take the opportunity to ask about a criminal investigation into that public servant’s doings, I would argue that is unprofessional.

Grimm didn’t have to answer the question. He could have said “Michael, my focus is on my constituents. I believe a lot of what I heard from the President tonight could harm the well-being of those constituents. They elected me to look out for them here in Washington, and that is what I intend to do.” And then he could have left, and stayed gone, rather than returning to engage in a verbal confrontation.

My background is probably important at this point. I spent ten years as an investigative reporter. My questions made a lot of people uncomfortable. I was yelled at. I was threatened. My editor received more than one call asking for me to be fired. But I did my job. My reporting led to congressional hearings. It led to government reforms in the way certain agencies did business and handled taxpayer money. And my editor never fired me.

I have now spent ten years in public relations. I have encountered a fair amount of unprofessionalism from my former colleagues in the Fourth Estate. I have been yelled at. I have been threatened. And yet I have continued to view reporters as performing a noble mission, keeping those they cover honest and accountable.

Grimm’s distorted definition of journalistic professionalism–that a reporter’s job is to only do what the interview subject wants–is pervasive. A PR person is constantly encouraged to get their client media mentions, and yet those clients are occasionally apoplectic when only a part of what they said in an interview is quoted; when the reporter has the audacity to include divergent points of view in the story; or when the copyeditor wrote a headline that doesn’t mirror the headline of the press release that led to the interview.

The sad truth is that many who rely on public relations officials to tell their stories hold reporters in little regard. And, unfortunately, the clients often also hold public relations professionals in little regard. And, perhaps even more unfortunately, public relations officials often hold reporters in little regard.

Reporters don’t always make it easy to defend them. There are good reasons why they are often held in very low regard in public opinion polls, often as low or lower than the people Scotto covers, members of Congress. (That’s pretty low.) But let’s put their work in context. They are working harder than ever now, as paid media is pulled out to sea like forgotten driftwood by the growing riptide of “free” digital content. They toil in their jobs while earning far less money than the vast majority of the people they interview. And they can claim something most of us can’t, that their job is the direct exercise of a vision of our Founding Fathers, enshrined in our Constitution.

I will continue to curse under my breath when I see or read an example of shoddy journalism (particularly the increasing introduction of the reporter’s bias into the story, which modern media’s push for “niche” markets unfortunately encourages). I will continue, as a PR professional, to present my clients in the best possible light, which includes occasionally asking for conditions in exchange for access. (It never hurts to ask.) And I will continue to subscribe to paid media, as long as the opportunity is afforded to me.

And I will also continue to, whenever it is appropriate, to take a moment to thank a reporter for their service to our democracy.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

20 Responses to “A Passionate Defense of Journalists”

  1. Well said. I especially liked the last part about reporter’s biases. Walter Cronkite did not spend the majority of the news hour talking about his beliefs, or using superlatives, adverbs and other marketing tools to tell the news. Yup, I just dated myself.

    • One advantage of the few TV news outlets in Cronkite’s day was that his corporate employer was forced to target a mass audience, and thus didn’t want to offend; it allowed great journalists like Cronkite to be objective. With hundreds of outlets on TV and online, the business model now is niche (think Fox News vs. MSNBC), and a would-be Cronkite can’t find employment (or an audience).

  2. The way journalists are being gagged via threats is alarming. There was an excellent documentary broadcast in the UK last year re Donald Trump’s apparent attempts to bully homeowners in NE Scotland out of their homes because he claims they spoil the view from his golf course (the same golf course which entailed bulldozing a Site of Special Scientific Interest!). The programme included footage of the journalist being thrown across the bonnet of a police car and treated pretty roughly by the local police (while NOT on Trump’s land), because Trump’s staff took exception to what he was doing (interviewing the home-owners who don’t want to sell up). I found this particularly shocking, not just as a journalist, but as a citizen who formerly trusted the police implicitly.
    Seems to me that the principle of a free press is under threat from Big Money. One very small step away from blatant censorship?

    • This is fascinating, Nancy; I hadn’t heard about this. I’ve been following the harassment reporters have been facing in China, and of course they are occasionally murdered in Russia. Sad to see this happen in a democracy like the UK.

  3. I’m tired of the entitlement I hear coming from individuals who feel they are owed or deserve something because of their status, their job, their whatever. That congressman is a perfect example of the kind of person I hope we stop electing into office. I completely agree with you that journalism is an important role and one that actually helps us hold to democratic values. If we have no one asking the hard questions… well, I think that’s a pretty scary thought!

    • Yes, the notion of “entitlement” in modern society is a topic that could be explored far beyond this one. There is the entitlement one gains with money or power or educational status; it does seem more pervasive now, or perhaps the fact that so much more of human activity is “viewable” due to media expansion and social media that we just notice it more.

  4. Well, I think that was probably a dynamite interview. Subject stomps off-stage, cursing. Look, the news has made the news. Congressman pretty much hangs himself, apologies notwithstanding. His actions speak louder than words. It’s great theatre. I don’t see anything wrong here at all. I certainly don’t see anything changing. In all likelihood, the arrogance of the entitled is only going to get worse. For journalists, risking getting thrown off the balcony might be the new normal. Maybe journalism is the new “high adventure.” We used to explore Africa for excitement, now we prowl around DC with a tape recorder. I think David Livingstone had the easier job.

    • A lot more people know of the investigation of Grimm than they did before, and for many the only thing they know about Grimm is this incident. Not good at all from a PR perspective, agreed.

      As someone who prowls DC professionally, I hope it’s not going to be as dangerous as Livingstone’s Africa!🙂

  5. Well said. No matter what the Congressman says, there is no excuse for that kind of behaviour. Unfortunately people in positions of authority (even though given that authority by the public) are often bullies. This is yet another example of a bully in action.

    • Thank you for introducing the “bully” angle. Here in the States we are hyper-focused on eliminating bullying in schools; it really is the biggest trend found nationally (our school systems are locally controlled, so you don’t always see trends that are indeed national). It doesn’t help when grown-ups in authority model bullying behavior.

  6. As a drop of ink falls onto paper it is potent with colour and quality. In time the ink bleeds through the paper and becomes weaker. It no longer has the purity once giving it strength. It is the same in any profession and for any product. Too many and too available and pretty soon you have a sale price war.Great blog. B

  7. Wonderfully stated. I think the thing to remember and what matters most to me, is 1)understanding that true dogged reporting has never been a job for the faint of heart or the easily swayed. And 2) the way situations like this are handled or allowed to be handled can well define the future of reporting in this country. I don’t usually like to go into politics deeply, but I am very tired of the obvious way that one party is literally crucified for every burp they make while the other feels it has the right to stifle legitimate points regarding its policies and practices. How do people not see this? That reporter has every right to sue Mr. Grimm for threatening his life in front of an audience. I guess its a good thing they haven’t yet passed legislation to okay gun carrying politicians or it may have been gunslinging time.

    • Thank you for the comment, Cheryl. I think this kind of discussion transcends partisan politics; it’s really more about professionalism and how that is viewed. And as to the “faint of heart” comment, some journalists were just arrested in Egypt the other day for doing what it appears is their job. Not good.

  8. Hmmm… so Grimm thinks being asked a question he doesn’t want to answer is an example of being unprofessional and disrespectful… but indulging in financial practices that lead to him being criminally investigated isn’t? ‘Interesting’ set of morals he’s got there…

    I say good on that reporter for having the balls to ask him the tough questions. Too many people in power think their position grants them automatic immunity from answering for their more unsavoury actions (that’s woefully true here in the UK too) and it takes a brave man to challenge them on that.

    Great post, Patrick, made all the better by the fact that you have experience from both sides of the battlefield, as it were.

    • Wendy, thank you for your reflective comment. And I appreciate your welcoming the insertion of my own background in the story. I felt it was important for context, but the journalist in me still winces every time I use the first-person singular pronoun!

  9. I’ve worked as a journalist and a legislative media staffer, and I see game-playing on the part of both parties in this story. Congressman Grimm played the game by regurgitating talking points packaged by his party’s media operation and acting outraged when the journalist veered off message. The journalist played the ambush game because he knew he would get no substantive comment from Grimm about the investigation. He wanted to give the guy a poke.

  10. Excellent post Patrick. We hadn’t heard about this. Journalism can be a dangerous job. Clearly. Even if he agreed not to ask the question or to keep it to the address, the politician had no business threatening him. You would think in a profession where they’re taught to smile & give polished answers, he would’ve expected the question to come up & would’ve had a stock answer prepared side-tracking the issue as most politicians have learned how to do beautifully. (talking in circles) or perhaps we’re being a little hard on the Congressman who was being kind and simply wanted to help the man bungie-jump as a form of entertainment!

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